On my left shoulder blade sits a tattoo of a yellow rose. Both of my maternal great-grandmothers were named Rose, and I’m named after one of them. The yellow rose is also my mom’s favorite flower. Above the rose, in Hebrew script, is the word haisha. Woman.
When my mom first saw the tattoo she was pretty furious, even though she hadn’t been too demonstrably upset by the other two I’d had inked previously. But she seemed to calm down a little once I told her that she was the reason I’d gotten it.
You see, my mom is the reason that I’m a feminist. And my grandmothers, and my great-grandmothers, and I wanted to pay tribute to all of them for forming the core of my identity.
My Nanny Rose, the one I was named after, was a suffragette. Born in 1897, she was educated in school through the eighth grade, but was offered a job on the first day of ninth grade and never resumed her formal education. She became a bookkeeper for a toy train company, stopped working for a while to raise my grandmother, and then returned to bookkeeping about 14 years later. My grandmother reports to me that Rose “never had any question that women could do anything” and raised her accordingly.
The other Rose, my maternal grandfather’s mother and my brother’s namesake, went to work in the defense plants at the onset of World War II. She was actually a Rosie the Riveter! She had no formal education as a girl in her native Russia, but eventually learned to read and taught herself English in order to pass the citizenship test in 1938. One of my paternal great-grandmothers was one of the founding members of Hadassah, the Jewish women’s group.
Nanny Rose’s daughter, my maternal grandmother (also Nanny), became a teacher. In those days, teaching was considered an ideal profession for women because they could be home in the afternoon along with their children. She only stopped working for two years after my mother was born, and then went to graduate school for her masters and PhD while still teaching high school, and later college.
Nanny was a contemporary of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, becoming active in the feminist movement and as a feminist academic around the time The Feminine Mystique was becoming widely read. Nanny wrote her PhD thesis on “The Changing Role of American Women.” In the 1970s she became the Director of Career Development at the City University of New York (CUNY), counseling young women on career opportunities. She was also active as a member of the CUNY Women’s Coalition, which won a major lawsuit against the university for discrimination against women in their recruitment, hiring, promoting, and retaining of female faculty.
After retiring and moving to Massachusetts, Nanny started volunteering with a local rape crisis hotline. As part of the training, she says, they were instructed in “what to tell girls about how to avoid being raped.” She asked, “why don’t we just instruct men not to rape?” So she started the Real Men Don’t Rape campaign. She did some fundraising, had billboards put up in the area, had a Letter to the Editor published in the New York Times, and distributed informational packets to local high schools. These types of campaign are far more common now, but this was 25 years ago. About 10 years ago, Nanny gave me her copy of Transforming a Rape Culture, which really opened my eyes to so much history, and to ongoing activism to address the rape culture and crisis. I consider this one of the most transformative moments in my feminism.
In her own right, my mom is an ardent feminist, and was a trailblazer for women in the legal profession. As a young, pregnant associate at a BigLaw firm in 1982, she and another pregnant associate advocated for the creation of a standard maternity leave policy that would allow women the flexibility to care for a newborn, and still return to work. This was ten years before the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act.
I don’t recall my mom ever sitting me down and telling me about how to be a feminist, apart from always being told that a girl can do anything a boy can do, that my gender shouldn’t hold me back from any career I want, and that pro-choice was absolutely the way to be. But she leads by example, lives her values, and always supports me in whatever activism I want to do. Thanks to her encouragement, and being raised knowing about my family’s activist history, I waged my first ever campaign at the age of 13, getting every kid in my middle school to sign a petition to Nike protesting the use of child labor in their manufacturing.
Recently, Gloria Steinem emotionally said at an awards dinner that she is “living out the unlived life of [her] mother.” I feel so lucky to have been raised and influenced by women who found fulfillment in their own careers and their own lives, such that there are no dreams left for me to take up on their behalf. It does feel like a lot of responsibility to live up to their accomplishments, sometimes, but I hope to blaze my own path and be an effective advocate for the next generation of feminist change.
But I feel so fortunate to know, also, that feminism is in my blood. In January of 1982, the Palm Beach Post published an article, entitled “For These Women, Feminism’s A Family Tradition.” It’s all about my mother’s, grandmother’s, and great-grandmother’s activism in the feminist movement, and how they were then advocating for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The original copy of that article is one of my most prized possessions.
I’m still a few years off from trying to have a child of my own, but I have sometimes wondered whether I would even want to have a daughter. It’s so hard to raise girls these days, with the media environment, hypersexualization of young girls, and rampant levels of violence against women. But now, reflecting on all that the women in my family have accomplished, and how each has contributed to the next generation a strong, passionate feminist who fights for her rights politically and in her own professional world, I think I’d like to give it a shot.